A to Z Challenge Folklore

Ankou: King of the Dead #AtoZChallenge #folklore

A is for Ankou

Learn more here.

If you’ve immersed yourself in my world, you’ll know that in Faerie there are different power players. Today we’re looking at Ankou, King of the Dead.

Folklore

The Old Man and Death

An Old Man cut himself a bundle of faggots in a wood and started to carry them home. He had a long way to go, and was tired out before he had got much more than half-way. Casting his burden on the ground, he called upon Death to come and release him from his life of toil. The words were scarcely out of his mouth when, much to his dismay, Death stood before him and professed his readiness to serve him. He was almost frightened out of his wits, but he had enough presence of mind to stammer out, “Good sir, if you’d be so kind, pray help me up with my burden again.”

 – Aesop’s Fables, p207, William Heinemann Ltd 1974 Reprint

Death’s approach should surprise no one

Death promised a man that he would not take him without first sending messengers. The man’s youth soon passed and he became miserable. One day Death arrived, but the man refused to follow him, because the promised messengers had not yet appeared. Death responded: “Have you not been sick? Have you not experienced dizziness, ringing in your ears, toothache, and blurred vision? These were my messengers.” The man, at last recognizing the truth, quietly yielded and went away.

Source: Retold from Death’s Messengers, Grimm, no. 177, type 335. This was a popular plot for the medieval writers of jests and fables. Lutz Röhrich gives twelve variants in his Erzählungen des späten Mittelalters und ihr Weiterleben in Literatur und Volksdichtung bis zur Gegenwart, vol. 1, pp. 80-92

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

A personification of death in Breton mythology, the Ankou also appears in Cornish, Welsh, and Irish folklore. Also known as the grave watcher, he is a fairy version of the Grim Reaper and often appears as a skeleton wearing a black robe and carrying a scythe. In Ireland he is known to ride a black coach pulled by four horses to collect the souls of those recently passed over.

According to Breton folklore collector Anatole le Braz (1859 – 1926). “the Bard of Brittany”, “The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou: ‘War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk.’ (On my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou.)”

In a short story by Wyndham Lewis, The Death of the Ankou (1927), a tourist in Brittany perceives a beggar to be the embodiment of the Ankou. In fact, it is the tourist who acts as Ankou to the beggar, who subsequently dies.

*More can be read in the book.

ankou on cart
Ankou. Image credit.

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

Variations: Death, the Grim Reaper, Father Time.

In the fairy lore of Brittany Ankou (“death”) was similar to the Grim Reaper; he also appeared in the fairy lore in Cornwall and Wales in Britain as well as in the fairy lore of Ireland. This singular individual was described as looking like a man dressed in dark robes; sometimes he was said to drive a black cart pulled by four black horses, other reports say he was headless. Rare reports say he has two skeleton assistants who hurl bodies upon his cart. Typically he appeared at dusk; active all year long he was especially powerful on November Eve (October 31). This benevolent and comforting fay collected the souls of those who died and took them to the Summerlands.

Ankou was a personification of death and to see him was a sure sign of your eminent death; an old Irish proverb claims “When Ankou comes, he will not go away empty”.

*More can be read in the book.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan

Death coach (dead coach) Irish folkloric object. On foggy nights in Ireland, a black coach could sometimes be seen drawing up to a home. Black horses drew the coach, which had no coachman or occupants. Or perhaps there was a driver, but he had no head. This coach was sent from the land of the dead to fetch someone from this life.

*More can be read in the book.

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

Who didn’t swoon when Brad Pitt played the role of Death in Meet Joe Black? Okay, maybe that was just me.

The personification of Death has been going on for millennia. The Ancient Greeks even had a god, Thanatos, as Death personified. And it’s been rampant in folklore – even in Aesop’s fables.

The popular depiction of Death is as a skeletal figure with a large scythe, wearing a black cloak with a hood. This came from 15th century England and has lasted for centuries. Calling this personification of Death the Grim Reaper reportedly started in the mid-18th century. The Grim Reaper is widely used to symbolise death and fear of the unknown.

In most mythologies, Death comes to collect people he/she marked for death and these people try to bribe or trick Death. Sometimes, though, Death is only there to escort the dying to the next world. Death never judges the dead, only escorts them to where they need to go.

There are many death omens in cultures across the world. Pictures falling off the wall, the cry of the Banshee, a black cat meowing at midnight, bees swarming a house, birds flying into the house, bats entering and then escaping the house, a dog scratching the floor, a mouse running over your foot, and even dreaming of a white horse all foretells misfortune and death. Ahem, that means I’m writing this post from the other side of the Veil because all of the above has happened to me in the last decade. The Banshee might have been me when Callum almost bit my finger off when he was eight weeks old…

All of this leads us to Ankou. He is said to be a spectral figure in Breton folklore, the counterpart to the Greek Thanatos. Sometimes, he is the spirit of the last person who died in the community. Usually Ankou is described as being tall with white hair, wearing a wide hat and a long dark cloak –  and being a skeleton. Of course, the Ankou’s head revolves constantly to see everyone everywhere. Creepily, Ankou drives a wagon pulled by black horses and piled high with corpses, stops at a house and just adds more (stopping in front of a house means someone inside is going to die). Ankou is something between the driver of the death coach in Irish folklore and the medieval Grim Reaper.

ankou sculpture
Ankou. Image credit.

Further Reading:

Ankou in Modern Culture

In Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series, Ankou is the sister of Far Dorcha. She collects the corpses of fallen fae while he takes their souls to the next world. (You can read my review of the series on Goodreads here.)

I haven’t come across Ankou (the folklore version) in other recent novels or short stories (except my own), so leave suggestions in the comments.

Ankou in My Writing

The Workers of Death

I’ll be doing full folklore posts about the workers of Death during this challenge, but here’s a quick overview.

Vila

Vilas are captivatingly beautiful Fae who live in both the Otherworld and the world of the living.
They have beautiful singing voices and are mesmerising to watch when they dance – which they love to do.
They are excellent archers and usually display this skill when mortals interrupt their revels. They have their revels beneath cherry trees.
Vilas have long flowing hair and typically wear white, though they are partial to shades of blue. They are the Keepers of the Blue Festival where all Fae who are blue can enjoy a revel designed to pay their Tithes and build their glamour.
They do not particularly like humans, though they know that it is necessary to enthral them to take part in their revels as sacrifice. They’ll do what they must to lure humans to their special revels. A thick ring of grass, a type of faery ring, remains after such a revel and those who are wise know not to pass, for their life-force will immediately be drained and they will become part of the forest.
They are the peacekeepers of the forest. Any animal or Fae with a problem can go their sacred Ash trees and have the Vila waiting there decide judgement. Though they love all animals, they are partial to dogs.
They delight in creating storms just for the fun of it. Though they’ll heal the injured and sometimes use their prophetic powers to avert tragedy.
Vilas are shape-shifters, a trait they share with most Fae.

The Furies

Furies are legion. They collect the souls of the fallen to do battle at the end of time.
They also punish the wicked, avenge the innocent and interfere in the lives of mortals and fae.
They wear clothes of ash, cinders falling in their wake. They have wings resembling that of bats.
Furies are excellent in battle. They can wield any weapon and can decimate their enemies in close-quarter combat (with or without weapons).
They live in the Underworld. They answer to Dagda, the Keeper of the Veil and Ankou – the King of the Dead. Like all creatures associated with Death, the rules of Faerie do not apply to them. They can be classified as deathfae.

Barguest

The Barguest is a black dog who usually looks like an Alsatian with Reddish eyes. But a mirror can reveal its true nature and looks: a spectral creature with fire for eyes.
They live in the Underworld, keeping souls from escaping back to the world of the living. And if souls were to escape, they go on the hunt in the human realm and forcibly take them back to where they belong.
Barguests ensure that all deals made with creatures from the Underworld are upheld. Usually it entails keeping the foolish mortal safe.
They are great companions and loyal. They have a strong sense of duty.

Dagda

Dagda is king of the Underworld. He has four castles – all spectacular – in the four corners of the world. He is perfectly toned with tattoos all over.
He possesses powerful magic.
He controls the growth of wheat and grass topside. Even in droughts he can make it grow so people won’t starve.
He is able to grant wishes – that is why he’s known as the Wishmaster. Wishes don’t come cheap: something has to be bargained.
Dagda was once a powerful figure in Faerie, but he overstepped his bounds and the Dark King punished him by making him the king of the Underworld: a place where souls from the Mortal Realm and Faerie have to wait for judgement once Dullahans have delivered them there.

Sirens

Young Sirens can choose a mortal life – live among humans, age like humans and even have magic like human sorceresses. Only their magic can work on Sirens. But if, at any point, her nails start to glitter silver, she has to return to her own kind (this usually happens if she’d used too much magic).
Sirens only feed on human men. They lure them into the water – either with their seductive appearances or by enthralling them with song – then they drown them, escort their souls to the Otherworld and then return to feast on the flesh before taking the bones to the roots of the tree that gives life to their kind.
Before drowning their victims, they are beauty incarnate dressed in glittering gold or silver. During the drowning, they turn into dark creatures dressed in black with a multi-coloured coiffure. After the drowning, they turn into a barely recognised female form of skinless red oozing around stray feathers and claws. After feasting on the flesh of their victims and placing the bones beneath the tree, they return to their perfect forms.
They sing from the moment they start drowning their victims, through the meal, until they’ve returned to their perfect forms.
The curse upon them is to be half-bird, half woman creatures unless they use enough magic to conceal their true nature. It takes a lot of sacrifice (the men drowned and eaten) to keep their magic strong. The bones at the roots of their tree feeds their magic.
They live in a beautiful ocean with an underwater waterfall. They have a meadow above ground that they sometimes call home. No matter where they live, they always look the same – it’s only during the feeding ceremony that they go to extremes. Most Sirens stay in their perfect form, though some like to stay in the dark creature transformation, multi-colour hair and all, to conserve magic.
Young Sirens of age have to go through a rite of passage: drowning their first victim. They have to perform perfectly or be punished by the older Sirens.
Sirens promise truth and knowledge only to deliver death. But if someone can come away enlightened instead of enthralled by the song of the Siren, the human will go free and the Siren will dissolve into the water she stands in, becoming one with the magic of the world. It is thought that if a Siren died like this during initiation, she’d live in the cool waters that the rest could only dream of.
Sirens really do know all – the past, present and future. They have the gift of telepathy and can read the thoughts of humans. It is this knowledge that got them cursed in the first place…
There is no known way to kill a Siren.

Banshee

The Banshee is a wailing wraith usually clad in green. she can have either red or blonde hair which floats around her. she is strikingly beautiful despite her incessant bawling.
Once she is banished (usually by a stronger Faery) her body puffs out to resemble a cloud of smoke and her face becomes truly ghastly and terrifying, still framed by her reddish-blonde hair. she disappears in a puff of smoke.
The Banshee always tries to trick people or Faeries into thinking that they’re dying. She’ll wail until the person she haunts dies. (Running away from her can be dangerous – cliffs, trucks, various sharp objects, etc.)
though the Banshee is thought to be a harbinger of Death, she usually causes it.

Dullahan

A terrifying creature. The only thing equally as scary is the steed he rides: a black horse which snorts sparks and has glowing eyes (colour differs from one steed to the next).
Dullahans are headless. They’re usually horsemen, though on occasion they will ride out in their carriages of death. The black coach has skulls all over lighted with candles from within. The wheels’ spokes are made of the femurs of humans and Fae alike. Six black horses swiftly and silently draw the carriage, creating fires in its wake.
Whether riding coach or steed, nothing can keep the Dullahan out. All locks unlock, doors and gates fly open whenever he wishes to enter. No-one is safe from the attentions of this Dark Fae.
The Dullahan’s head can either look like mouldy cheese, stale dough or some weird combination thereof with the distinct form of a skull. A terrifying, hideous, idiotic grin splits the face – broadening the closer the creature is to calling a soul to ride with him to the realm of the dead. The entire head glows phosphorescent, the strength of the light varying for stealth. Sometimes the Dullahan will use his own head as a lantern to see by…
The Dullahan likes blood. He carries with him a basin full of it, throwing it at the inquisitive who look upon him and sometimes on his victims to subdue them.
Probably the most macabre aspect of this Faery is the human spine he uses as a whip. Legend has it that the spine belongs to someone he cared for in a previous life.
Dullahans are created by the Unseelie Court as part of some weird ritual to appease the dead. Dullahans can either be made from humans (they don’t last really long) or from Fae who were chosen for this sacrifice. Always the one chosen to become a Dullahan is beheaded by a gold axe.
They have a strong allegiance to the Unseelie Court.
Dullahans don’t like speaking all that much. Mostly because the head settled on the saddle-brow can be dislodged by too much talking. A myth had arisen that this Faery has a limited power of speech because the disembodied head mostly only calls out the name of the soul he came to collect.
Though there’s no true defence against this herald of Death, the Dullahan seems to have an irrational fear of gold. (Probably due to it being a golden axe that killed him in a previous life.) Only gold weapons have any effect on them. Gold gathered from the ground with magic and then thrown at them works like shrapnel and is quite effective at chasing them off.

Merrows

Merrows keep the souls of the drowned in cages until they can be collected by Black Dogs (usually Grims or Barguests) to go to their final resting place in the Underworld.
They live in the in-between world Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves) just like most other Fae who fall within the Water Fae Classification (e.g. Selkies, Sirens, Jengu, etc.).
Just like all Fae, they are able to change their appearance at will. When not in their mermaid-like form, fish tails and all, they wear warmer coats resembling sealskin to survive icy waters. The webbing between their fingers and toes makes it easier to swim.
All their magic is kept in their red caps without which they do not dare go near other Merrows for fear of enslavement. Better to wait out the human who stole it and pretend to be captured than face true torment at the hands of their own for eternity.
Merrows, like all Fae, enjoy toying with humans. And though they’ll warn against storms, chances are they were the ones who created it.
Some even hunt humans to eat them and keep their souls in cages as pets.

Grim

The Grim is a black dog that looks a lot like a wolf. It has brown markings on its legs, a lot like that of a Cù Sìth. They can become shadows to stay invisible to mortal eyes.
They live in the Otherworld, guarding the Misterss of the Veil between worlds. Their job is making sure that all festivities that have to do with the mortal world and theirs go smoothly (Samhain, Solstice, etc.). Sometimes they have to hunt Faery-Hybrids, magical lakes and other things that threaten their Mistress or the festivities they safeguard.
Like all black dogs, they are fierce protectors and loyal.

Valkyries

Valkyries choose warriors to fight at the end of time – when good and evil will battle until only one side survives.
New Valkyries are chosen during battle the same way warriors are chosen for the final battle: some see it as a blessing while others see it as a curse. Warriors are treated like they’re something special, Valkyries have to work and serve until the end of time.
They train mercilessly. They are true warriors adept at all types of fighting.
There are different types of Valkyries: those who prefer to fight in ancient skirt armour, those who prefer medieval armour and others who like full-body leather outfits fitted with matching armour. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses – those who prefer leather aren’t all that into being subservient and are usually a lot stronger (mentally, physically, emotionally, magically) than the others.
They have a commander and they follow her orders to the letter – Valkyries aren’t supposed to have opinions of their own (which is why those who prefer leather – and have the strength that goes with it – are so rare).
Valkyries are all women. They were brave in their mortal lives and are even braver as immortals. They fight the Furies for possession of human souls to fight at the final battle (Ragnarok).

There are others, of course, but I haven’t written folklore posts about them yet. You can read three thrilling tales involving the Keeper of the Veil in Unseen (for free!) when you sign up for my newsletter.

How It All Ties Together: The Deathfae

Now you know what had inspired me to write about Ankou, to make him the King of the Dead. Let’s look at how it works in my world. (In order of importance and rank.)

  1. Ankou = in charge of all the dead.
  2. Keeper of the Veil = keeps the realms separate, in charge of all the Workers of Death (everyone else on this list).
  3. Dagda = in charge of keeping souls in the Underworld.
  4. Vilas = judge who should live and who should die.
  5. Merrows = keep souls until they go to the Underworld.
  6. Sirens = escort the souls of their victims to the Underworld.
  7. Grim and Barguest = hunt souls that have roamed outside of the Underworld and take them back to where they belong.
  8. Furies and Valkyries = escort souls to their place in the Underworld, keeping them to fight at the end of time.
  9. Dullahans = escort souls to the Underworld.
  10. Banshees = cause death to those marked for death.

Fun, right?

Obviously deathfae like mingling with humans as much as any other fae, so halflings are bound to be born.

Origin of the Fae: Ankou

Ankou can appear as a skeletal being with a scythe and wearing a cloak – just as folklore claims. But he usually dresses smartly, especially when visiting the Faery Queen. He stays bone white, though. He likes the fact that all fae fear him, or are at least uncomfortable with his presence – even those who work for him.
He sometimes collects the souls of the dead in his black cart/carriage. Depending on his mood and the circumstances, he can be quite gentle with the recently dead and take them to his realm himself instead of leaving them to the tender mercies of the dullahans and others in his service.
It is his duty to maintain order between the Otherworld and the land of the living (Faerie and Mortal Realm alike). He has various servants (dullahans, banshees, sirens, etc.) with specific duties to maintain this order. His most trusted lieutenants are the Keeper of the Veil and Dagda, ruler of the Underworld.
During Samhain, when the Veil between Worlds are at its thinnest, he leads a procession of dead fae and some of his servants through the world of the living. When they come across living beings, they are to be appeased with baked goods or dessert. Or they will play cruel tricks on the individual. That is why it is best to stay indoors, hidden in the dark, during Samhain lest you attract the attention of Ankou and his subjects.

ankou English Afrikaans
sketch of ankou by ronel janse van vuuren
pierced half deathfae boy from the inn by ronel janse van vuuren
once book extract
Get it here.
extract the inn
Get it here.

What do you think about Ankou? Anything about this folklore creature you’d like to add? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to Ankou.

Sign up for my newsletter and receive a free ebook. I won’t share your information and I’ll only email you once a month with updates on new releases, special offers, and a bit of news.

28 thoughts on “Ankou: King of the Dead #AtoZChallenge #folklore”

  1. A fascinating post, thanks! Are these detailed descriptions of the various creatures connected with your own writing rather than the folklore versions? I am familiar with some of them, but not with the detailed stuff, eg vilas and sirens. Just wondering…

    I do like Melissa Marr, though I have only read a couple of the Wicked Lovely books. She does her folklore research very thoroughly and when she added tattoos to her Faeries, it felt believable, though she admitted it was just that she like tattoos.

    a href=“https://suebursztynski.blogspot.com/2020/03/a-to-z-challenge-2020-is-for-arthur.html>A Is For Arthur</

  2. Superb first post for the challenge! 🙂 I love folklore themes, and you have made a great collection of information 🙂 I also love your system of death fae. Ankou has always been one of my favorites, especially because it’s always a former person, the last dead of the year. It’s good to know there are potential jobs in the afterlife…

    Happy A to Z! 🙂

    1. Thanks 🙂 It was lots of fun — and hard work! — to get information from various sources. Oh, there are many jobs in the afterlife from what I’ve read while doing research about Ankou — but those posts will have to wait 🙂

  3. Ankou is a new word to me, not heard of this one before, although I recognised most of the other folklore you mentioned :D. Death is such a focus that he/she is always there somewhere aren’t they. Your mention of the Irish death coach has me remembering the terribly corny episode of the 1980s version of Mission Impossible – I love that show, but, oh my, the Irish accents played by Australians 😂. Hope you have a great AtoZ.
    Tasha 💖
    Virginia’s Parlour – The Manor (Adult concepts – nothing explicit on blog)
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Vampire Drabbles

  4. What a great start to AtoZ. I am going to visit as often as possible but–forgive me–it won’t be as much as last year. Plus, I’m a little down over the mess the world is in. Hopefully, here in the US, things will brighten up by the end of April.

    1. Thanks 🙂 We’re in lockdown here in South Africa, so there’s not much to do except blog and write while staying safe from the zombies (easier to imagine the disease as something that can jump out at you from behind a tree than people not practicing social distancing). Stay safe!

  5. This is is so fascinating, Ronel. I love the idea of Ankou. It’s interesting that many different cultures have similar characters in folklore. I love the explanation of the hierarchy in your fantasy world. You are the queen of worldbuilding!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *